The 2013 Asian Business Aviation Conference & Exhibition (ABACE) at Shanghai’s second airport, Hongqiao International, held from April 16 to 18, served as a reminder of how far China and the rest of Asia still have to go to reap the benefits of business aviation. Currently there are relatively few general aviation aircraft in the potentially fertile region, and the thrust of the show was to assess what steps are being taken to nurture the segment, especially in China.
Show organizers NBAA and AsBAA (Asian Business Aviation Association) considered this year’s event (the second since last year’s re-launch) a success. NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen, in his remarks at the opening of the show, said ABACE 2013 represented a “milestone” event, and he thanked the Shanghai Airport Authority and “a visionary number of leaders here in Shanghai and throughout the Chinese government.” The event again was hosted by the Shanghai Hawker Pacific Business Aviation Service Centre, one of China’s pioneering FBOs.
The organizing associations told AIN that visitor numbers were up 20 percent on last year’s, at 7,714 registered by the morning of the last day, while exhibitors numbered 180, up 15 percent on last year. About a quarter of the exhibitors were from the Asia-Pacific region. On the static display the final count was 34 aircraft, with a couple of late arrivals, compared with 27 last year. More companies, 13, opted to take chalets this year, representing a 44-percent increase on last year. Jason Liao, NBAA’s representative in China and chairman and CEO of the China Business Aviation Group, told AIN that he believes ABACE could be an EBACE-sized event within three years.
The General and Regional Aviation Committee of the U.S.-China Aviation Cooperation Program was scheduled to release a key report on the opening of lower airspace on April 24. The report is expected to lay out a roadmap for policy and infrastructure improvements.
Meanwhile, across China regional governments have been backing the construction of new airports to facilitate the growth of commercial air transport in general. The question for the crowd at ABACE was how this will also benefit general and business aviation, and the answer remains clouded. As a result, the segment is populated predominantly by large-cabin, long-range aircraft coming in and out of the country from distant parts of the world, rather than regional or domestic business aircraft operations.
What is clear, and encouraging, is that China’s government has placed the development of business aviation high on its agenda. This is feeding through to the market in a variety of ways, one of which was highlighted by an International Operations Panel Discussion held at ABACE last month. Pilots acknowledged that there are challenges, even in Hong Kong, generally rooted in a lack of understanding of the nature of business aviation operations. Denzil White, director of flight operations at Hong Kong’s Metrojet, cited the implementation of a new parking-slot program at the international airport that gives business aircraft the lowest priority, institutes onerous application procedures and shows no preference to aircraft based at the airport. The change was made without consultation with operators.
Helicopter sales could also be set to boom in the region, many believe, with cities such as traffic-choked Shanghai set to benefit from quick transit times. However, heavy air pollution (as witnessed by ABACE visitors at hazy Hongqiao) can reduce visibility. A helicopter panel at the show heard calls for a unified helicopter association to work on a number of fronts to open the market. One notable obstacle is the current prohibition against helicopter landings at the major airports, with Bell and Eurocopter (which marked its 100th China-based aircraft) obtaining permission to fly helicopters into Hongqiao only after protracted negotiations with the local authorities.
Deer Jet, the corporate aircraft arm of Beijing Airlines, launched what it is billing as the first fractional ownership program in China, taking the initiative from NetJets, which in the run-up to the show made clear to AIN that it is taking a more cautious, charter now/fractional later, approach. Deer Jet’s Time Share program already offers shares in a Gulfstream G450 and G550 (the latter was on display at the show).
Also grabbing headlines were Minsheng Financial Leasing (MSFL), which announced its Minsheng International Jet charter arm (built from the recently acquired Citic General Aviation); Gulfstream, which brought a G650, making its ABACE debut, while also handing over a G450 to AllPoints Jet at the show (the company’s second aircraft, a G550, will follow in June); and Beechcraft, enjoying its first show following the restructuring of Hawker Beechcraft, brought three King Airs to ABACE. Turboprops represent another little-understood class of aircraft in China at present, but as in other aspects the market is learning quickly.
Other manufacturers were present, giving updates on sales and manufacturing ventures in the region. A prime example was Cessna, which is fast approaching a point where it can turn out both the Caravan and Citation XLS+ from two new plants, built in partnership with China Aviation Industry General Aircraft (Caiga). The U.S. manufacturer expects the first Chinese-built Caravan to be completed next month and the first XLS+ in next year’s first quarter.
Embraer is also leveraging its long-standing regional jet manufacturing venture in Harbin, by producing Legacy executive jets–boosted by orders from MSFL in recent years. Legacy 650-size jets are not yet first on the list of aircraft to buy for Asian companies, but that is gradually changing as they realize the benefits of smaller aircraft for regional flights, charter operations add more bases around the region as infrastructure develops and bureaucracy becomes less onerous.
Aircraft from Bombardier and Gulfstream may dominate the fleet at present but Dassault has a growing fleet of Falcons in China, and at the top end Airbus and Boeing are also boosting their presence (both had examples of their bizliners at ABACE: a Comlux ACJ318 and a BBJ, which was handed over to Yantai City, Shandong-based Nanshan Jet at the show).
In conclusion, Bolen professed his association “pleased to see the continued excitement about the future of business aviation in China, and across the broader Asian region, as demonstrated by the numbers for this year’s event.”